‘Psychopathy is defined as a mental (antisocial) disorder in which an individual manifests amoral and antisocial behaviour, shows a lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, expresses extreme egocentricity, and demonstrates a failure to learn from experience and other behaviours associated with the condition.’ (Dominance and Aggression in Humans and Animals, 2017). This essay will focus on psychopathy and to what extent it relates to the environment compared to genetics. The aim of this essay is to discuss the contributing genetic factors as to why the disorder exists and the enviroment that allows it to. An example of genetics contributing to psychopathy can be shown (Bezdjian et al. 2011, pp. 589-600) in a sample of 1219 twins and triplets where a study was conducted to assess psychopathic traits shown in the 9-10-year olds, this was done using caregiver reports of the child’s behaviour where a child psychopathy scale was used. The results showed that there was a significant influence of genetics on the psychopathic traits found in both boys and girls, examples such as this will be explored further on in the essay. On the other hand, some environmental factors that may have contributed to the disorder could be violence, childhood neglect, childhood abuse, sexual abuse, deprivation in infancy, academic failure or peer rejection. Some of these important environmental factors will be explored in detail further on in the essay.
Although there is no definitive proof that genes alone cause psychopathy there have been numerous genes that have been linked to psychopathy. The gene that is popularly linked to psychopathy is the MAOA gene (Monoamine oxidase A) also known as the ‘warrior gene’, those who have the low activity MAOA gene are more likely to be violent, impulsive and aggressive. The MAOA gene contains an enzyme in the brain that breaks down neurotransmitter such as adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. Having low level activity in this gene results in key neurotransmitters such as serotonin (which is responsible to regulate mood, social behaviour and function) and dopamine (affects emotions) not being produced causes psychopathic traits such as lack of empathy, lack of remorse, impulsivity, irresponsibility and short-term relationships. Many murderers have been shown to exhibit these traits which leads to questions such as were murderers born to kill? Do genes contribute more to the cause of psychopathy or the environment?
A study conducted by (Caspi et al., 2002 pp. 851-854) studied a large sample of male children from their birth to adulthood to see why some of the maltreated children grew up to exhibit anti-social behaviour whereas others don’t. They found that the MAOA gene moderated the effect of maltreatment and those with high levels of MAOA were less likely to develop anti-social problems compared to those who had low levels of MAOA activity. This study supports the idea that those with low level MAOA gene and those who have irregularity in the production and regulation of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are more likely the exhibit psychopathic(antisocial) traits.
Supporting research of another gene – Serotonin (5-hydroxyindoleactic acid;5-HT) linked to psychopathy has shown similar results Sadeh (2010 pp. 604-609) said that individuals with a deficiency in this gene showed antisocial, aggressive and impulsive behaviour. Sadeh (2010 pp. 604-609) included (Soderstrom et al 2001: Soderstrom et al 2003) ‘have linked cerebrospinal fluid concentrations of a serotonin metabolite (5-HIAA) to psychopathic traits in violent adult offenders, in that low levels of serotonin metabolites and high levels of dopamine metabolites were associated with overall levels of psychopathy.’ This shows that there is a compelling link of genes with psychopathy or at a minimum that genes do play a significant role in psychopathy and antisocial behaviour.
The environment by many psychologists has been said to be another important factor that influences the cause of psychopathy. Environmental factors such as violence at home, abuse from a young age and deprivation should be considered when discussing whether the factors are significant enough to have an impact. A study (LiveScience, 2017) conducted by researches studied prisoners at a prison in Wisconsin where they looked for psychopathic traits in 127 prisoners. The location of Wisconsin had been chosen as psychopath is much more prevalent in their population compared to the general population. The study used a scale that would evaluate the prisoner’s psychopathic traits where out of 40 a score of more than 30 would indicate the prisoner was a psychopath. The result showed that 40% of the prisoners were psychopaths and those who had witnessed abuse onto their siblings or parents at home were more likely to score highly showing they had psychopathic traits. Those who did not witness domestic abuse were least likely to score highly on the scale. The study is important in understanding that environmental factors do have a considerate amount of significance into explaining the causes of psychopathy. It arises controversial debates such nature vs nurture as one cannot be proven yet and therefore may be a combination of both environment and genetics.
One environmental factor that has been proposed by psychologists is parental bonding. (Gao et al, 2010, pp. 1007-1016) included in the journal mentions the study of Bowlby (1969) where 44 male juvenile offenders were affectionless psychopaths because of poor mother-child bonding and maternal deprivation. Bowlby believes that a child would suffer permanent consequences as a results of material deprivation such as intellectual consequences e.g. low IQ and emotional consequences e.g. delinquency and becoming an affectionless psychopath. Bowlby found that out of the 44 offenders 14 were affectionless psychopaths and 12/14 had experienced early separation from their mother. Bowlby believed that there was a critical period of 2.5 years where a strong attachment must be formed between a mother and child or else they risk serious mental health issues. The studies are a useful insight when discussing the environmental causes of psychopathy as it allows us to explore more then one factor and does not limit us to one factor that lacks definitive proof.
The nature vs nurture is a common debate when discussing psychopathy and there is a more convincing possibility that psychopathy is a combination of both environmental and genetic factors. Environmental factors may contribute more than the genes in one case, however this could be vice versa, an example of this can be shown in (BusinessInsider, 2015). James Fallon is a neuroscientist who studied the brains of violent offenders such as murders who were thought to be psychopaths, this is when he found out he had the brain of a psychopath which later led him to realise he shared psychopathic traits. Fallon also discovered he possessed the MAOA-L gene which has been linked to aggression. Fallon confessed to sharing the trait of having a lack of empathy, but his cognitive empathy allows him to know how to react as though a ‘normal’ person would in situations where emotion and understanding is required. However, even though Fallon possessed the gene Fallon lived a nonviolent normal life and even had a good upbringing, Fallon does admit that had he not have had a good upbringing he could’ve turned out differently to how he is now. This case is particularly intriguing as it highlights how two of the most important factors that potentially causes psychopathy varies in individuals who may have the gene/brain but a good healthy environment growing up compared to those who have don’t have the genes but an upbringing that resulted in psychopathy.
To conclude, one important factor to consider when discussing the causes of psychopathy is genes such as the MAOA gene where low levels have been linked to aggression and antisocial behaviour. The disruption of production and regulation of neurotransmitters is important in understanding that this does affect an individual’s mood and behaviour as shown in the studies which show they are linked to psychopathy. On the other, the environment is an important factor when explaining psychopathy. As shown above in the studies an abusive deprived childhood may result in possible psychopathy. Overall both arguments have case studies which support either one whereas the findings of James Fallon indicates to a more compelling belief that psychopathy is in fact a combination of both genetic and environmental factors.